R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel begins God in Search of Man with the following words:
It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.
Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions….There are dead thoughts and there are living thoughts. A dead thought has been compared to a stone which one may plant in the soil. Nothing will come out. A living thought is like a seed. In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.
In the Talmud Tractate of Derek Eretz Zuta, we find inspiration for living in a way that opens us to receive the miracle of each moment. Jewish spirituality includes a desire to honor life, to be awake to its possibilities, to cherish the ordinary until we see its beauty, to be amazed by the leaves on the trees, the sound of rain, the eyes of another person, the food we eat, the intricacies of our bodies, the magnificence of the solar system. You know how small children have the capacity to be awed by the ordinary? As we grow older, we tend to forget how to see, and can become entrenched in patterns that blind us to the total mind-blowing coolness of existence. Judaism as a spiritual practice teaches us to remain present and receptive.
We also find in Derek Eretz a discussion of core values that highlight what we owe to each other as a society, including beliefs about such concerns as worker’s rights, freedom of religion, and responsible stewardship of the environment. The book Great is Peace: A Modern Commentary on Talmud Bavli Tractate Derek Eretz Zuta, which I co-authored with Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal, provides a complete translation of this important tractate along with a line-by-line explanation of the text in contemporary language. (Because we are so far removed in time from the circumstances of the people who wrote it, it is helpful to be able to identify parallels with modern technology and customs, so that is what we tried to do.)
Some of the values that liberal Jews tend to hold, even if unaware of the exact origins of these ideas, appear in Derek Eretz as follows:
Be a good merchant, pay well, and strive always to do good….Our business ethics never say caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, but lifne iver, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind.
Love all creatures, and respect them….Jewish law requires us to prevent tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the suffering of living creatures.
Love doubtfulness (i.e. everything shall be doubtful to you until you convince yourself of it)….The love of doubtfulness – the love of critical thinking – leads us to the love of study.
Nine entered the Garden of Eden when they were still alive….Six of those allowed to enter Paradise were neither Hebrew nor Jewish. Two were converts. Three were ba’alim teshuvah. “The righteous of all nations [religions] have a share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin 105a).
Let your accounts always be correct, and your conduct excellent. Keep your promise….We must not relate to other human beings as if they are vehicles or obstacles to our goals.
Love righteousness….”Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (Deut. 16:20). The Talmud explains that the first tzedek teaches us to judge by the letter of the law, and the second reminds us to live by the spirit of the law (Shnay Luchot HaBrit, Shoftim 101a.)
Seek peace, and pursue it….The pursuit of peace and justice are not time-bound [as are other commandments]. In places without them, we work to establish a peaceful and just environment.